UNESCO World Heritage Sites are landmarks that have been recognized for their cultural, historical, or scientific importance. Although there's certainly no shortage of fascinating destinations throughout our planet, these sites are overwhelmingly unique and they have each stood the test of time.
In this article we're going to showcase our top 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In addition, we'll highlight the diverse nature of these locations so that you may become inspired to explore them for yourself.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza is perhaps Mexico's most famous landmark. The city was constructed by the ancient Maya civilization between the 8th and 10th centuries in the Mexican state of Yucatan, which is also the name of the peninsula where this UNESCO World Heritage Site is located.
From an architectural perspective, Chichen Itza contains a diverse range of influences compared to other Mayan ruins in the area. Many of these influences can be seen in the city's architecture, which suggests that the population was in contact with other civilizations.
Chichen Itza had an extensive trade economy that stretched throughout much of Mexico and Central America. The population of this UNESCO World Heritage Site was able to obtain resources that were not naturally available in their area. For example, archaeologists have discovered obsidian from central Mexico and gold from the southern part of Central America.
The city fell into decline sometime in the 13th century but still maintained a sizable population up until the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula in the 1500s.
The ruins were re-discovered and surveyed by American explorer John Lloyd Stephens in the early 19th century. Stephens subsequently wrote a book titled Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, which became immensely popular after its release.
This book helped to establish Chichen Itza as one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world, a title which has remained to this day.
Sintra is a municipality in western Portugal that has a long and celebrated history. This UNESCO site holds various historical castles and royal estates dating back to the 8th century. In addition, the municipality also features impressive nature parks and gardens that can be enjoyed by visitors and locals alike.
This mixture of historical significance and diverse scenery has helped to establish Sintra as an immensely popular destination along the Portuguese Riviera.
The municipality of Sintra is home to numerous historical castles and forts that are centralized in a forested area among hills and cliffs that overlook the Atlantic Ocean. To get around the National Park of Sintra, there are beautiful walking trails, tour buses, and 3 wheeled tuck-tucks that are great for maneuvering the winding roads.
One important historical site within Sintra is the Castle of the Moors (pictured above). This medieval fort was built by the invading Moors in the 8th century during a turbulent period of history on the Iberian Peninsula know as the Reconquista. The Moors were subsequently driven from the castle in 1147 after the Portuguese conquest of Lisbon, which itself was a defining moment of the Reconquista.
Another impressive site is Sintra's colorful Pena Palace. The palace was originally constructed as a chapel in the 15th century to honor the Virgin Mary. Later, in 1838, King consort Ferdinand II acquired the building and commissioned a large construction project that would turn it into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family.
Over time the vibrant colors faded until the building was almost completely gray. In the late 20th century, the palace was repainted to depict the original colors at the time of its completion.
Today Pena Palace is one of the most visited sites in Portugal and is regarded as a major work of 19th-century Romanticism.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site nestled in the Peruvian Andes. The ancient city was constructed by the Inca empire around 1450 but was abandoned less than a century later during the Spanish conquest of Peru.
There has been a great deal of confusion over the purpose of Machu Picchu ever since its discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911. This UNESCO site is often mistakenly referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas", a title which actually refers to the nearby site of Vilcabamba (a rebel stronghold during the Spanish conquest).
Machu Picchu is now commonly believed to have been used as a royal estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. There would have been hundreds of Incas living at the site with the sole purpose of supporting the estate and serving the wishes of the Inca emperor.
Machu Picchu is divided into two parts with an urban sector built into the upper portion of the site and an agricultural sector built into the lower portion. The Incas used the mountainous terrain to their advantage by employing advanced cultivation and irrigation methods.
The Incas also developed a masterful system of cutting and fitting stone blocks together without mortar. The arrangement of these stone blocks provided a method of stabilizing structures that would have otherwise quickly deteriorated due to earthquakes, landslides, and flooding.
Borobudur is a 9th century Buddhist temple located on the island of Java in Indonesia. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and serves as Indonesia's most visited attraction.
Similar to Machu Picchu, Borobudur was constructed without the use of mortar. The site features an impressive 2,672 relief panels (wall carvings) and 504 Buddha statues.
It's estimated that Borobudur took 75 years to complete. However, the site was abandoned by the 14th century after a large percentage of the Javanese population began converting to Islam.
Borobudur entered the public eye after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the former British ruler of Java, discovered the site in 1814.
The temple fell victim to looting during the 19th century as thieves found it easy to steal artifacts from the site. In fact, the colonial-government of Java even gave consent, on occasion, for artifacts to be taken from the site.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site underwent various restoration projects during much of the 20th century in an effort to maintain the temple and prevent it from deteriorating.
Today Borobudur evokes a great sense of pride among Indonesians and serves to remind the population of their historic past.
Petra is an ancient city in southern Jordan that dates back as far as 400 B.C., although settlers may have inhabited the general region much earlier. The location was chosen by the Nabateans due to its favorable location near major trade routes in the middle east.
The first recorded reference to this UNESCO World Heritage Site was when the Greek Empire attacked Petra in 312 B.C. The Nabateans were able to successfully repel the invading Greeks by using the mountainous terrain surrounding Petra to their advantage. However, the city was invaded again and conquered by the Roman Empire in 106 A.D.
Petra began its decline as a major trade center during the Roman occupation, in part due to the emergence of competing trade routes. Further, In 363 A.D. Petra was severely damaged by an earthquake. Many buildings were destroyed along with the advanced systems of water management that had been constructed by the Nabateans.
Petra eventually came under control of the Byzantine Empire and was subsequently abandoned sometime around the 8th century.
The ruins were re-discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, which was the first time that the western world was made aware of the city's existence. In 1929, Petra was excavated and surveyed for the first time by a group of British archaeologists and scholars.
Today Petra is one of the new seven wonders of the world and is renowned for its impressive architecture and ancient history. Adding to this fame, the city has also been featured in numerous movies over the years, most notably in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Find UNESCO Sites On Our World Travel Maps
Our World Travel Maps feature a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as many other fascinating destinations on our planet. You can use push pins to track which sites you've already visited or which ones are still on your list.
What's your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site? Let us know in the comments below!